In Defense of the (Relatively) Great Warren G. Harding

The latest ratings of presidential greatness tells us more about the priorities of historians than it does about the presidents. The following were rated as the greatest presidents: Lincoln, Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

There is merit to the high rating for Washington. As to the others, they include a president who did nothing to stop lynching, needlessly prolonged the Great Depression, sent a ship of Jewish refugees back to their doom in Germany; another president, who fried thousands of Japanese babies (thus violating all the dominant theories of just war); yet another president who shredded the ancient constitutional right of habeas corpus; and finally a president who openly defended war and imperialism.

Between them, they brought the United States into three major wars which resulted in over a million American deaths.

Rated by the historians in the “worst” category, by contrast, is, you guessed it, Warren G. Harding: a president who successfully promoted economic prosperity, cut taxes, balanced the budget, reduced the national debt, released all of his predecessor’s political prisoners, supported anti-lynching legislation, and instituted the most substantial naval arms reduction agreement in world history. Go figure.

For a sample of Harding’s comparative good sense, listen to this audio of his best known speech.

For a more sensible ranking of all the presidents, which puts Harding much higher on the list, see the excellent new book by Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.

David T. Beito is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, retired professor of history at the University of Alabama, and author of The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights: The Untold Story of FDR’s Concentration Camps, Censorship, and Mass Surveillance.
Beacon Posts by David Beito | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless